Skip to main content

Dear President Biden,

I am writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch. We monitor and report on about 100 countries around the world, including Vietnam. We understand that your administration has been seeking to upgrade the relationship between the United States and Vietnam to “strategic partnership,” and that you will soon be visiting Hanoi to cement these new ties.

These diplomatic developments and your visit present an important opportunity to restate and amplify concerns about the Vietnamese government’s repressive human rights record. We strongly urge you to publicly raise human rights concerns before and during your trip and call on Vietnam’s government to release political prisoners and commit to undertake needed reforms. The relationship between United States and Vietnam has steadily grown in recent decades, but it is important to communicate to Hanoi that further progress in US-Vietnam relations will be limited unless Vietnam takes significant steps to reduce repression and undertake human rights reforms.

In recent years, the Vietnamese government has sentenced to prison hundreds of people for activities that should not be criminal. As you know, the Communist Party of Vietnam seeks to maintain its monopoly of power by arresting and prosecuting people in unfair trials for publishing or posting on social media critical views of the government, joining independent organizations, and advocating for political reforms. Besides criminalizing free speech and peaceful assembly and severely restricting basic political and civil rights, the authorities tightly regulate the formation of independent organizations and prohibit independent press, publications, and other media.

Currently, the government is holding at least 159 political prisoners, and another 22 are held in detention pending police investigation and eventual trial. We strongly urge you to name some of them by name in public remarks.

Among those imprisoned is the prominent blogger Pham Doan Trang, who is serving a nine-year sentence for her advocacy for freedom of speech. Authorities arrested her on October 6, 2020, just a few hours after the completion of the 2020 bilateral Vietnam-United States Human Rights Dialogue. In March 2022, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden delivered remarks recognizing Pham Doan Trang as one of the bravest journalists in the world. We urge you to raise her case during your visit, as well as the case of Nguyen Bac Truyen, a prisoner recognized by the US Commission on International Freedom, who in addition to promoting human rights and democratic norms, has drawn attention to abuses against own persecuted religious group, Hoa Hoa Buddhists, as well as Christian groups. Vietnam’s leaders should be hearing public calls on these and other prisoners listed in the appendix below; the Vietnamese government should drop all charges against them and release them from prison or pretrial detention.

It is especially important to publicly raise political prisoner cases because the Vietnamese government’s attacks on dissidents have been intensifying. Over the past five years, the length of prison sentences meted out to dissidents have grown significantly, and reductions of sentences on appeal now seldom occur. Vietnam’s courts are not independent: sentences are decided in advance by the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam, which tightly controls the government, National Assembly, and judiciary and police.

The authorities intrusively conduct surveillance on people’s use of the Internet, and employ intimidation, harassment, administrative punishment, arrest, and prosecution of anyone who dares to challenge the government or party online. In terms of freedom of association, workers cannot form independent unions outside the party-controlled Vietnam General Confederation of Labor, and the government severely restricts the activities of national and international non-profit groups in the country.

The government has ownership of all land in the country and often evicts farmers from lands they have occupied for generations, without adequate compensation, for development projects over which local residents have no say.

We also urge you to focus on how the government’s repression has undermined the rights of environmental defenders. Despite government assurances on addressing global climate change, Vietnam has systematically arrested and prosecuted environmentalists engaged in combatting production and use of fossil fuels, especially coal.

In May 2023, police arrested prominent national environmentalist Hoang Thi Minh Hong on bogus tax evasion charges. Hoang Thi Minh Hong was a 2018 Obama scholar, and former President Barack Obama recognized her environmental leadership in a tweet at that time. She joins environmental leaders Dang Dinh Bach, Mai Phan Loi and Bach Hung Duong, who have already been sentenced to prison on politically motivated tax evasion charges. Nguy Thi Khanh, the winner of the prestigious Goldman Environment Prize, was similarly held but released from prison in May 2023, five months before the end of her two-year sentence.

We also urge you to raise issues about cases in which Vietnam’s government has facilitated Chinese government transnational repression against human rights activists, or has itself engaged in transnational repression – a topic that your administration has separately raised with respect to neighboring China.

In August 2022, Vietnam arrested and forcibly returned to China human rights activist Dong Guangping even though US and Canadian diplomats in Hanoi were actively negotiating at that time for his relocation to Canada to join his wife and daughter.

Vietnamese government personnel were directly involved in the violent abduction of blogger Duong Van Thai, whom the United Nations refugee agency recognized as a refugee, in Pathum Thani province in Thailand on April 13, 2023, and his forced transport back to Vietnam.

During your visit to Hanoi, we urge you to voice concerns about these issues and press the Vietnamese government to release all political prisoners. We also ask that you call on the government to commit to easing restrictions on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and freedom of religion and belief. Vietnam’s leaders need to hear from you and other leaders that exercising basic freedoms should not be considered a crime, and that US-Vietnam relations can never reach their full potential unless Vietnam eases its repression and improves its human rights record.

We include, in an appendix, additional information about political prisoners, details on restrictions on freedom on information and on freedom of religion and belief, and key action points that the US should incorporate as benchmarks for human rights progress in Vietnam.

Thank you for your consideration of our views on these important matters. Please do not hesitate to contact us for additional information.



Elaine Pearson

Director, Asia Division




  1. Political Prisoners and Detainees

Vietnamese authorities frequently use vaguely worded and loosely interpreted provisions in the Vietnamese penal code and other laws to prosecute and imprison democracy, human rights religious and environmental activists. These include “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” (article 109), “undermining the unity policy” (article 116), “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” (article 117)/or “conducting propaganda against the state” (article 88 of the 1999 penal code), and “disrupting security” (article 118). The authorities also use other articles in the penal code to target rights campaigners, including “abusing the rights to democracy and freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations, individuals” (article 331), and “disrupting public order” (article 318).

Vietnam currently holds at least 159 political prisoners, and 22 political detainees in pretrial detention pending police investigation and court trial. During the first eight months of 2023 alone, the courts convicted at least 15 people for voicing criticism of the government, campaigning for human rights, environmental measures, or respect for democracy, and sentenced them to many years in prison, including prominent rights activists Bui Tuan Lam, Dang Dang Phuoc, Truong Van Dung, Nguyen Lan Thang and Tran Van Bang.

Vietnam’s Criminal Procedure Code stipulates that the procurator of the People’s Supreme Procuracy can decide to hold a person suspected of violating national security in detention until the investigation is concluded (article 173(5)), and can restrict the detainee’s access to legal counsel until after investigation is concluded (article 74). In practice, this means that those who are suspected of violating so-called national security offenses are regularly held in police custody without access to a lawyer for as long as the authorities see fit.

The US government should publicly call on the Vietnamese government to:

  • Immediately release all political prisoners and pretrial detainees, held for exercising their basic civil and political rights.
  • Repeal penal code articles 109, 116, 117, 118 and 331 or amend them to conform with Vietnam’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Vietnam ratified in 1982.
  • Amend or repeal article 74 and article 173 of the Criminal Procedure Code to permit all people detained for any alleged violations, including national security crimes, to have immediate access to legal counsel upon being arrested.


  1. Repression of Freedom of Information

The Vietnam government continues to prohibit independent or privately owned media outlets to operate. It exerts strict control over radio and TV stations and printed publications. Criminal penalties apply to those who disseminate materials deemed to oppose the government, threaten national security, reveal state secrets, or promote “reactionary” ideas. The authorities regularly block access to politically sensitive websites and frequently attempt to shut down blogs. They also require internet service providers to remove content or social media accounts that the government deems politically unacceptable.

Vietnam’s problematic cybersecurity law went into effect in January 2019. The overly broad and vague law gives authorities extremely wide discretion to censor free expression and requires service providers to take down content that authorities consider offensive within 24 hours of receiving the request.

The US government should publicly call on the Vietnamese government to:

  • Bring all its media laws and regulations into full compliance with article 19 of the ICCPR.
  • Allow the publication of uncensored, independent, privately run newspapers, magazines and internet publications.
  • Remove filtering, surveillance, and other restrictions on the internet. 
  • Amend the Law on Cyber Security , the associated Decree 53/2022 , and other related decrees and bring them into full compliance with international human rights standards, including the ICCPR.


  1. Repression of the Right to Freely Practice Religion and Belief

The Vietnamese government restricts religious practice through legislation, registration requirements, harassment, and surveillance. Religious groups are required to gain approval from and register with the government as well as operate under government-controlled management boards. While authorities allow many government-affiliated churches and pagodas to hold worship services, they regularly ban religious activities they arbitrarily deem to be contrary to the “national interest,” “public order,” or “national unity.” As of September 2021, Vietnam acknowledged that it had not officially recognized about 140 religious groups with approximately one million followers. Most of these unrecognized groups practice their belief at house churches or rental locations. The government labels Dega Protestant, Ha Mon Catholic, Falun Gong and a few other religious groups as “ta dao” (evil religion) and harasses and persecutes those who practice those beliefs.

The police monitor and sometimes violently crack down on religious groups operating outside government-controlled institutions. Unrecognized independent religious groups face constant surveillance, harassment, and intimidation, and their followers are subject to public criticism, forced renunciation of faith, detention, interrogation, torture, and prosecution.

Police arrested Y Krec Bya (known as Ama Guon) in April and Nay Y Blang (known as Ama Tuong) for being affiliated with independent religious groups.

The US government should publicly call on the Vietnamese government to:

  • Allow all independent religious organizations to freely conduct religious activities and govern themselves. Churches and denominations that do not choose to join one of the officially authorized religious organizations with government-sanctioned boards should be allowed to operate independently.
  • End the campaign of government harassment, forced denunciations of faith, arrests, prosecutions, imprisonment, and ill-treatment of people because they are followers of disfavored religions.
  • Permit outside observers, including representatives of United Nations agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and foreign diplomats, to have unhindered and unaccompanied access to the Central Highlands, including specifically to communes and villages from which Montagnards have recently departed to seek asylum abroad. Ensure there is no retribution or retaliation against anyone who speaks to or otherwise communicates with such outside observers.


Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country